Shakespeare to a Screen of Boxes

“I all alone beweep my outcast state”

I’d done the lesson before, a world away, last year. That was back in a simpler time, when we could gather in the same room with students, then, as now, a group of theater kids with the topic on hand of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The opportunity to teach came as a kindness from a generous teacher who knew how much it means to me as a principal to teach every year, the lesson a throwback to my days as an English teacher, a dozen years spent in front of a classroom.

That idea of a front of a classroom, the notion of anything today being a throwback to anything that has come before …that just feels …incorrect. Because teaching today in this first semester of 2020, is different.

Wildly different.

So when I set about teaching this fabulous group of students it wasn’t in a classroom at all, but me in my office and thirty or so students in bedrooms, at kitchen tables, and sipping chai on couches (as one student told me she was doing). We were all connected through screens, an imperfect replacement for the magic of in person teaching.

I’ve written about this connection before, about the alchemy of teaching and learning, the humanity of working with kids, the spark that comes between people in a classroom. But this time…

The teacher started the class with some theater warm-ups, a great way to begin since I hoped they’d read some of the sonnets aloud. To hear him march through stretching and zombie calls, dash trippingly through “cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum” and the like was a delight. I scanned the boxes on my screen: icons and names …and a few student faces. It was so strange to see familiar names, but not the kids I know attached to them. I knew this would be an issue; teachers had mentioned the difficulty to students not always turning on cameras, sometimes for very legitimate reasons (technology, mental health) not just in this class, but across the remote learning experience.

And difficult it was.

We started with an introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets, a bit of historical perspective, and a primer on prosody. The students listened …I think. The crossed out red microphone in every box kept those delightful impromptu student responses muted. Painfully muted. Teaching in person allows for reading body language, seeing students eyes, overhearing those unexpected utterances, and moving around the room to help keep students engaged. 

Online my lesson felt decidedly one sided. A voice kept whispering in my head that my song and dance wasn’t even as good as a video the students could just be watching. Sharing my screen only exasperated the challenge; even if I could see more boxes they might be names or icons, not student faces. Four crossed out red microphones or thirty-four crossed out red microphones it still felt like it was just me as I got started. 

Was I reaching them? that whisper asked. All the ways I used to tell were gone to me. That voice of doubt was in my head, not through the computer; everyone in class was still muted and many had their cameras off.

We marshaled through sonnet 118, taking it apart quatrain by quatrain after an intrepid student turned on their camera to read it aloud. When that student turned on their camera and started reciting it was as if the heavens had opened, the clouds parted, and something miraculous had happened.

I spoke more than I should have, but even with a pretty high comfort level for extended wait time that felt like the only way to move forward. My appreciation for the teachers who do this every day, multiple times a day, grew and grew. At its worst this experience was nerve wracking; at its best it was modest in the unexpected joys that kept me teaching for a dozen years. For anyone tempted to be critical of teachers in this world of remote learning I’d say try your own hand at teaching before saying a word. You may find yourself with different words.

In modest nibbles the students began chewing on Shakespeare’s language, offering ideas, often more willing to answer my questions in the chat than with camera or voice. A couple messaged me in the chat that they were having trouble with their cameras, one that her mic didn’t work. These kinds of technical challenges aren’t unique to a handful of students. Every week I talk with parents or students who struggle with connectivity. We’re all doing what we can do. And that’s okay.

I tried breakout rooms, groups of six or seven for each of a quartet of sonnets. The theater teacher went into one group, with the well known sonnet 130, and I visited the others in turn, sonnets 29, 116, and 138. They each had some specific instructions (scanning the poem, looking for unfamiliar words, and reading for meaning) and the charge that when we returned to the main meeting we’d have someone from each group read their poem aloud.

In the first breakout room I visited only one student had his camera on. Yet, the students were encouraging to one another, collaborative voices behind the white names on black backgrounds. I stuck around until they hit a sticking point and together we dove into the lines: 

I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope

There was some resonance in those words, more than 400 years old as they are, and the students, each in their own individual box on the computer, understood what it is to feel a bit “outcast” these days. That said, the couplet at the end of the poem resonates with me as well:

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The second breakout room was quieter yet. One student talked me through what they’d discussed before I arrived, but overall, crickets.

When I entered the third group my heart soared. Every camera was on and the discussion was rich. They noticed discrepancies in the iambic pentameter and were speaking smartly of the poem writ large. This was so much like what school would be in person, and felt like a rare joy in this online world.

When we got back to the main meeting we had time for two awesome students to read their sonnets aloud. When I saw them turn on their cameras the whole world got a little better. 

In this compromised environment that was all it took.

The ones who spoke did marvelously, actors as they were, and many students were able to talk about the poems intelligently, as students do. It was not the experience I’d had with this lesson before, and after I signed off at the end of the lesson I texted the teacher: “THANK YOU! That was strange, but fun.” It was fun. Because…

Today I got to teach. It was not perfect. It was not bad. It was not what I’d always done or how I’d always done it. Truth be told, it was not how I’d like to do it as soon as I’m given another choice.

Remote learning is hard, and while we had to connect through screens and across miles, today we connected. At least a little. Right now, I’ll take that.

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